Monday, January 28, 2008

That's Vichy

Ruth Franklin argues that it is wrong to market Suite Francaise author Irène Némirovsky as a Holocaust writer because her earlier works, written prior to the Holocaust, were not flattering to Jews. Franklin sees the author's ultimate fate, death in Auschwitz, as "an irony that could have come directly from her own fiction," and implies that Némirovsky on some level had it coming. So much of Franklin's article has an anachronistic interpretation of what was known when and what constituted morality in which circumstances. She seems to find it exceptional that Némirovsky wrote a letter to Pétain asking to be spared, as though this were itself evidence of the author's friends in high places, when in fact this was not an unusual thing for Jews in France to do once the anti-Jewish laws appeared. It's not as though Pétain was responding in kind. Franklin writes,

Who can blame Némirovsky for trying to save herself and her family? Still, it is hard to suppress a cringe at her language: "I cannot believe, Sir, that no distinction is made between the undesirable and the honorable foreigners." And more to the point, this language was entirely consistent with the representations in her fiction.

In an unjust system, people fight for what they can get. This much Franklin understands. Némirovsky was not fighting for the Jewish people, but for her own family, which she did not consider to be Jewish. To her it was an injustice that she was being persecuted as such. In a sense she was right in noting the injustice of her fate being mixed up with that of people she did not feel she had anything in common with. As for her fiction...

The tragedy of the Holocaust was not simply that good, proud, philo-Semitic Jews were killed as Jews. It was more that no differentiation was made between those who considered themselves to be Jews and those who did not, those who loved Jews and those who had negative or indifferent feelings towards things and people Jewish. Némirovsky may have been an anti-Semite whose ideas indirectly encouraged (or, more likely, capitalized on existing) anti-Jewish sentiment at what was in retrospect a dangerous time. But what's upsetting is not that she portrayed greedy Jews with big noses without offering up blond and generous Jewish characters as counterparts, but that she was a victim of the Holocaust despite her antipathy towards Jews. In a way, this is the best sort of author to be marketed today as a 'Holocaust writer,' since her example reveals the purely racial (or more accurately, imagined-racial) definition Hitler and Pétain employed.

The convention of applying the term 'self-hating Jew' to those of Jewish ancestry who are anti-Semites is itself anti-Semitic. It's declaring that Jewishness is a race, that it's fate, and that options for even non-Jewish Jews must remain limited. While it doesn't sound like much of a disaster to limit the options of 'ethnic' Jews such that they may not be anti-Semites, it is fighting anti-Semitism with more of the same. Much as anyone might think it the only moral option for Jews is marrying in, promoting Israel, or keeping Shabbat, the second you start telling people that if their name is Goldberg, they should feel one way or another about these issues, you're playing the same game.


Miss Self-Important said...

I leave things Jewish and French to your expertise, but I assume that when you say that the tragedy of the Holocaust was that "non-Jewish" or non-identifying Jews couldn't opt out, you don't mean that massacring the others is more justified b/c they voluntarily identified, or that self-identity was actually the crux of the problem?

Phoebe said...

It is more tragic to be killed for what someone believes you represent than to be killed for what you believe in. That's not to say the Holocaust wasn't tragic in both respects.

Anonymous said...

Technically - it could be argued that it is more tragic to do for your beliefs, rather than someone else mistaken beliefs.

Tragedy means ones demise was inevitable - and a person is undone by the same quality that makes them succeed or manifest themself earlier. It's the inevitable